So Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds finally found something they can agree on. They are jointly demanding that the United States set a timetable for withdrawal of its troops from their country. That's hardly the rallying cry the Bush administration might have hoped for, but perhaps it could provide a base line for stabilizing Iraq.
The Iraqi declaration came this week at a reconciliation conference in Cairo organized by the Arab League. According to an account in the Arabic daily Al Hayat, sources at the conference said they wanted the withdrawal to take place over the next two years. That's not very different from the gradual pullout that U.S. military planners have been discussing. And if managed wisely, a phased U.S. withdrawal could provide a framework that allows the new Iraqi government that will be elected next month to unify the country.
By calling for an eventual U.S. pullout, the Iraqis are buying time and perhaps also slowing the drift toward civil war. Iraqis of all stripes can say they share the goal of liberating their country. Meanwhile, they can work on new security measures that might actually make a U.S. pullout feasible over the next two years. And by positioning themselves as liberators rather than American stooges, the members of the next Iraqi government can collaborate better with their powerful neighbors in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. A stable Iraq won't be possible without such regional support.
What will be galling to Americans in the Cairo statement is its endorsement of the Iraqi insurgency's "legitimate right" to resist U.S. occupation. Too many U.S. troops have died from insurgents' bombs for that to go down easily. The flip side is that the conference condemned as illegitimate the Muslim terrorists headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi. That fosters America's goal of separating rank-and-file Sunni insurgents from Zarqawi, whose al Qaeda movement poses the greatest long-term danger to Iranians, Saudis, Syrians and Iraqis, as well as to Americans. This shared interest in opposing al Qaeda is an essential building block for progress.
I discussed the outlines of the Cairo package with several Iraqi Sunni leaders while I was in Amman last week. They viewed it as a way to consolidate support among Sunnis for the new Iraqi political process and for the government that will emerge in December. They link any U.S. pullout to development of Iraqi security forces that can co-opt and contain the insurgency.
"We support the insurgency, but we don't support the suicide bombings," Sunni politician Mishan Jabouri told me. He heads a party that's running in December's elections on a platform that opposes U.S. occupation -- but is also quietly working to build up Iraqi security forces so the Americans don't leave a vacuum.
An example of how this "Iraqification" transition might work is a new unit known as the Desert Protection Force, which is beginning to operate in war-ravaged Anbar province. The plan has been pitched to Sunni tribal leaders as a way to liberate Anbar from the Americans. The goal is a 6,000-man force that can eventually secure the Euphrates River valley, from the town of Al Qaim along the Syrian border to Ramadi. So far U.S. Marines are said to have trained about 350 Sunni troops, with another 1,200 in the pipeline.
A planning document for the new force says it will send a message to the terrorist and criminal gangs that have plagued Anbar: "The community will take upon itself the protection and security of the region and all terrorist activities will be fought."
For Americans and Iraqis who have been putting this desert force together, the aim is that it will provide an Iraqi "hold" in the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of "clear and hold." Explains one of the Sunni tribal leaders who organized the project: "We would like the force to be strong enough for the U.S. to get out."
After the Bush administration's mistakes in Iraq, it's not surprising that the Iraqis want liberation. But most Iraqis are wise enough to understand that a sudden U.S. pullout would be a mistake. Americans should have the same clarity about the war, and stop trying to rush a process that requires patience.
What's the definition of success in Iraq? Perhaps Americans and Iraqis are converging on a similar formula: a stable, unified Iraq, at peace with its neighbors -- without U.S. troops. That goal is still a long way off, but Iraqis will feel they are making some progress if the new government elected in December can at least begin discussing the terms of an eventual withdrawal. It would be good if the U.S.-Iraqi project were again focused on liberation rather than occupation.